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Former Harry Reid staffer on Biden's support of getting rid of the filibuster


Today in Atlanta, President Biden called this moment a turning point in this nation's history. He characterized this as a moment to further empower those who would end democracy, like the Capitol insurrectionists, or a moment to begin a, quote, "renaissance of our democracy" and pass two pieces of voting rights legislation currently stalled in the Senate.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend the right to vote, our democracy, against all enemies foreign and, yes, domestic.

CHANG: Biden pointed to the dozens of laws enacted to curtail voting rights and warned of more to come.


BIDEN: And now Republican legislators in several states have already announced plans to escalate the onslaught this year. Their end game - to turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion.

CHANG: And Biden came out strongly in support of a change in Senate rules to clear the path for passage of both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.


BIDEN: I believe the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills - debate them, vote, let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.

CHANG: Get rid of the filibuster. That last point is of special interest to Adam Jentleson. He served as deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid, the former Democratic majority leader, and he joins us now.


ADAM JENTLESON: Thank you so much for having me. It's good to be here.

CHANG: Great to have you. OK, so today, as we just heard, President Biden called for getting rid of the filibuster completely - the legislative filibuster. Do you think that is the right move?

JENTLESON: I do. I do. And what's interesting is that, you know, President Biden, the consummate institutionalist - right? - serving more than 30 years in the Senate, is calling for a return to the way the Senate used to be. And the Senate was envisioned by the framers as a majority rule institution. I think that gets lost a lot in our current conversation, that the idea that it takes more than 60 votes - or that it takes 60 votes to pass things in the Senate is a recent development. And I think what he's calling for is a return to the way the Senate used to work, where there would be extensive debate, and then bills would come up for a simple up or down vote on a majority-rule basis. I think that makes a lot of sense in particular for civil rights and voting rights.

CHANG: Can you talk about what the filibuster was originally designed to do? Give us more detail on that.

JENTLESON: Well, originally, there was no filibuster. And I think that's important for your listeners to understand. There was no filibuster in the original design of the Senate. There were rules limiting debate. If senators were considered to be obstructionist in their debate, there were ways for senators to cut them off. And every single vote that occurred in the Senate all the way through the 18th and 19th centuries into the 20th century were majority-rule votes. The filibuster really arose out of an effort to protect Southern interests. In the Jim Crow era in particular, the supermajority threshold got introduced. And that was explicitly used to block civil rights bills. So it has a sordid and very racist history, and I think it's time for us to move beyond that and return the Senate to the way it used to be but include civil rights in that return to majority-rule voting.

CHANG: And, Adam, I mean, you were in the Senate for a long time as a top aide. Can you characterize during your time in the Senate how the filibuster had been used, is still being used, by senators?

JENTLESON: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the filibuster, you know, from the end of Reconstruction through the Jim Crow era, it was used almost exclusively to block civil rights bills. From - in the '70s, '80s and '90s, its use started to rise gradually, and it started to be used on other issues. When I was there, it was used on virtually everything that came before the Senate floor. I think that is one of the other new uses of the filibuster - is that today it is used on virtually everything that comes before the Senate. And that's why it's become customary to think that things require 60 votes to pass in the Senate. But again, that is a new development. I think it's something we need to step back and say, that is not how the Senate is supposed to work. Democracy is about having debate, listening to the other side. But at the end of the day, bringing your bill up and letting it come up for an up or down vote, majority rules, and that's the way it is.

CHANG: And let's be very clear here because Republicans - I mean, they have been called out again and again by the other side for using the filibuster to obstruct the work of lawmakers. But Democrats have used the filibuster to block Republican efforts, right? It has been used by both sides for political self-interest, right?

JENTLESON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's basically a rite of passage at this point to be on both sides of this issue. It's something that is true of Democrats and Republicans. But, you know, what's happened is that senators have defended the filibuster when it served their narrow political interests. And that's something that has happened, you know, to virtually everybody from the '70s, '80s and (inaudible). But I think what Biden is doing is resetting this conversation, focusing it on the way the Senate should be, the way it should operate. And that is a healthy thing to do, especially on the issue of civil rights and voting rights.

CHANG: OK. Well, what if what happens is not just simply getting rid of the legislative filibuster altogether? But let's say, theoretically, all Democrats agree to some sort of carve-out, some sort of exception to the legislative filibuster simply for passing voting rights legislation. What about the slippery slope argument that carving out an exception now could actually hurt Democrats down the line if Republicans end up controlling the Senate and use a carve-out themselves to pass their own agenda? What do you say to that argument, that this could be a what-goes-around-comes-around kind of situation?

JENTLESON: Well, I do think it's probably true that if you change the rules, you know, that that's going to lead to more rule changes down the road. However, I also think that if you don't change the rules, you know that you are incurring a major cost right up front in not passing voting rights legislation, and then you're leaving it up to Republicans to rely on them and put faith in them to not change the rules when they are back in power. I don't think that's a particularly good bet. I think it's highly likely that when Republicans are back in power, they will also change the rules as they did to confirm Justices Gorsuch, Barrett and Kavanaugh. So I think, you know, when you're in power, you have to follow through on the things...

CHANG: Yeah.

JENTLESON: ...You promised and deliver the things you believe in. And that's what we have to see here.

CHANG: That is Adam Jentleson. His book about the rise of the modern Senate is called "Kill Switch."

Thank you very much for joining us today.

JENTLESON: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Elena Burnett
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